Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I’ve commented before about how Lewis Carroll’s “What the Tortoise said to Achilles” identifies a paradigmatic gap between principles and action, which may be summarised as “Yeah, what are you going to do about it?”
I was recently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s brilliant comic memoir “Three Men in a Boat”, which reads like a lost work of Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been a Victorian English dandy (as, I suppose, he almost was in his later years). There was this account:

We stopped under the willows by Kempton Park, and lunched. It is a pretty little spot there: a pleasant grass plateau, running along by the water’s edge, and overhung by willows. We had just commenced the third course—the bread and jam—when a gentleman in shirt-sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn’t given the matter sufficient consideration as yet to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion on that point, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we were trespassing, we would, without further hesitation, believe it.

He gave us the required assurance, and we thanked him, but he still hung about, and seemed to be dissatisfied, so we asked him if there was anything further that we could do for him; and Harris, who is of a chummy disposition, offered him a bit of bread and jam.

I fancy he must have belonged to some society sworn to abstain from bread and jam; for he declined it quite gruffly, as if he were vexed at being tempted with it, and he added that it was his duty to turn us off.

Harris said that if it was a duty it ought to be done, and asked the man what was his idea with regard to the best means for accomplishing it. Harris is what you would call a well-made man of about number one size, and looks hard and bony, and the man measured him up and down, and said he would go and consult his master, and then come back and chuck us both into the river.

In other words, you can accept the principles of property rights as far as the most devoted libertarian would wish to push them, but they still get you nowhere without a plan of action to enforce them.

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